Supermarket and packaging giants call for UK-wide ban on degradable plastics

Representatives from the likes of Tesco, Waitrose, Aldi and the Co-op have signed an open letter to Ministers calling for a ban on plastics which are only degradable in industrial conditions with chemical additives.

The EU approved a directive to ban oxo-degradable plastics in 2019

The EU approved a directive to ban oxo-degradable plastics in 2019

The letter urges the UK to follow suit from the EU and implement a legally binding ban on oxo-degradable plastics. This law will not be transposed after the Brexit transition period.

Oxo-degradable plastics have proven controversial for years. They are technically degradable and some strains do break down outside of industrial conditions. But studies have found that some strains simply break into smaller and smaller pieces, resulting in microplastic pollution, while others need to be exposed to additives under industrial conditions for degradation to begin.

Additionally, these plastics are regarded as hard-to-recycle by many experts, as they should not be mixed with traditional fossil-based plastics at mechanical recycling facilities.

Signatories of the letter believe that the environmental benefits of oxo-degradable plastics have been over-emphasized to Ministers. A particular concern is the fact that the British Standards Institution (BSI) filed for a new specification earlier this month to support the sale of these materials.

“The UK voted for the EU ban when it was proposed in 2019,” the letter states. “Failing to act now could turn Britain from a leader into a laggard in fighting the plastic crisis.”

Business signatories include representatives from Tesco, Waitrose, Aldi, the Co-op, BASF, KCC Packaging, TIPA and Vegware. Also supporting are environmental NGOs including Butterfly Conservation, the Wildlife Trusts and A Plastic Planet; and trade bodies the Environmental Services Association and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

The NFU may seem like an outlier, but plastic use on farms has proven to be a key sticking point for environmental policy discussions. Plastics are used to transport products and to wrap hay bales, and the Environment Agency has recorded an uptick in microplastic pollution in soil. Once soil is contaminated with microplastics, it fails to attract as much biodiversity and, by extension, nutrient quality decreases over time.

Policy tipping point

The publication of the open letter comes amid the return of the Agriculture Bill to Parliament. Voting on amendments to the Bill resumed earlier this month, after the process was paused due to Covid-19.

It is hoped that the Environment Bill will return to Parliament in the coming weeks after delays of more than 200 days. The Bill will be amended to create legally binding, time-bound targets around waste, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has confirmed.

Further delays, however, have been confirmed for the Resources and Waste Strategy – the biggest UK-wide policy shake-up in this space in more than a decade. The Strategy outlines changes to Extended Producer Responsibility schemes on plastics and will bring the new tax on non-recycled plastics into effect. Defra has pushed back the second round of consultations on the Strategy to early 2021.

The Conservative Government's overarching environmental commitments are to leave nature in a better state than it was in 2010, when David Cameron was appointed as Prime Minister, and to couple improvements to the environment and to the economy. 

Sarah George



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